Today is the 5th Sunday of Great Lent, when we commemorate our holy mother, St. Mary of Egypt. Before speaking about her, let me begin with something a little different that will illustrate the difference between Simon the Pharisee and the sinful woman that we heard about in today’s Gospel.
During the first Great Awakening in 18th century America, when Protestant revivals were sweeping the nation, there was one church in Enfield, Connecticut that had been largely unaffected by the widespread religious revival. On July 8, 1741, Jonathan Edwards, one of the most well-known Puritan preachers in America, was invited by the pastor of the Enfield church to deliver a sermon to them. His aim was to teach his listeners about the horrors of hell, the dangers of sin and the terrors of being lost, and thus was delivered his most famous homily, anthologized in English literary textbooks ever since, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
I am sure you did not come to church this morning expecting to hear a message written by a Protestant minister, but bear with me, and you will see my purpose. I will quote only a few paragraphs that capture the essence of his sermon, and that will be sufficient.
Edwards is addressing the people in this particular congregation who remained in their sin and showed no signs of repentance, ignorant of the eternal consequences. After making the point that God is angrier with these sinners who are still on earth than even with those He is tormenting in hell, he writes:
Thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger, neither is God in the least bound by any promise to hold them up one moment;… In short, they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of; all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance of an incensed God. …
The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood. …
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours… It is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.1
What if St Mary of Egypt had been in that congregation that morning? Do you think she would have repented of her sins and understood God’s loving-kindness toward sinners? Or would those pious Puritans have branded her with a scarlet letter, judging her to be under the wrath of God until they saw fit for her to be forgiven? Had Simon the Pharisee been there, perhaps he would have been glaring at her, wondering how she had not dropped down into hell already. I can assure you that Edward’s sermon makes very little mention of God’s love and mercy for sinners. When he does, later in the sermon, he writes:
Now God stands ready to pity you; this is a day of mercy; you may cry now with some encouragement of obtaining mercy. [Here, Edwards seems to be offering some hope!] But when once the day of mercy is past, your most lamentable… cries and shrieks will be in vain; you will be wholly lost and thrown away of God, as to any regard to your welfare. God will have no other use to put you to, but to suffer misery; you shall be continued in being to no other end; for you will be a vessel of wrath fitted to destruction; and there will be no other use of this vessel, but to be filled full of wrath. God will be so far from pitying you when you cry to him, that it is said he will only ‘laugh and mock’.2
It is said that Edwards never finished his sermon on that day, because people kept interrupting, shouting, “What must I do to be saved?!” But what kind of conversions were they, I wonder?
Let me say emphatically, calling all the saints as my witness: this is not Who God is. Time does not permit me to express the errors of biblical interpretation that Edwards makes here regarding the meaning in scripture of the phrase “the wrath of God,” so let’s leave that aside.
But let us reflect rather on how someone like St. Mary of Egypt viewed God. We can be confident that her life is pleasing to God, because, as most of us know, hers is the only saint’s biography read publicly in church as part of the liturgical services. The Church in Her wisdom, guided by the Holy Spirit, gives us an example that clearly demonstrates God’s abundant compassion for even the worst of sinners. It is safe to say that most of us, in one way or another, to greater and lesser degrees, can relate to St. Mary of Egypt, in that most of us have defiled ourselves with sins and passions of various kinds, whether in the past, or even at present, and like the prodigal son, we have squandered our inheritance. Now, we are trying to repent and struggle to achieve union with Christ, but for many of us, we still view God in the way that Jonathan Edwards presents Him. Perhaps we don’t even view our sins as being as bad as St. Mary’s were, but still the following description might describe us. Some people, particularly us westerners,
…tend, by nature or training, to see God always as the stern, unappeasable Judge, whose dealings with man are always based on law and justice, and who demands of us an exact fulfillment of rules and rubrics. And we, in fulfilling these, do not really hope for, or believe in, the transfiguration and renewal of our souls and minds. At best, we hope that our scrupulous fulfillment of the Law will induce God to overlook our flaws and sins that we, in our heart of hearts, feel remain always with us, unforgiven, unchanged, and unchangeable. In such an atmosphere, one’s spiritual life is not really a journey into communion with God through repentance and deification, so much as a dreary pendulum of efforts to appease an inscrutable and implacable God, interspersed with the outbreaks of resentment and frustration this causes us. Naturally… this leads either to a mental breakdown, or to the abandonment of participation in church life, which we come to feel is not “working” for us.3
And thus, we never understand who God really is, and never truly repent, not feeling in our hearts and believing that God is compassionate and loving. But St. Mary of Egypt shows us both what true repentance is, and also a deep understanding, despite our wretched state, of Who God is, and His love for us given through His Most Pure Mother and all the saints. The saints were people just like us and struggled against the very same things we struggle against.
From her life she recounts her sinful past to Abba Zosimas, the priest-monk who found her in the desert: “Already during the lifetime of my parents, when I was twelve years old, I renounced their love and went to Alexandria. I am ashamed to recall how there I at first ruined my maidenhood and then unrestrainedly and insatiably gave myself up to sensuality. … For about seventeen years,… I lived like that. I was like a fire of public debauch. … I had an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth. This was life to me. Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life. That is how I lived.”4
Later she tells how she took ship to Jerusalem at the age of 29: “Whose tongue can tell, whose ears can take in all that took place on the boat during that voyage! And to all this I frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will. There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher. I am amazed, Abba, how the sea stood our licentiousness, how the earth did not open its jaws, and how it was that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls.”
But she does not despair, and she tells Abba Zosimas: “But I think God was seeking my repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits his return to Him.”
Magnanimously! What a perfect word to describe how God waits for us! All of the Sundays leading up to Great Lent, we have heard of God waiting magnanimously for sinners to turn to Him: Zacchaeus, the Publican, the Prodigal Son.
Again, St. Mary said: “For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits his return to Him.” How strange! St. Mary is quoting the Bible here (Ezekiel 18:23)—the same Old Testament that Jonathan Edwards liked to quote from. How different, as we shall see, is their understanding of God.
Upon arriving in Jerusalem, after failing multiple times to enter the Church on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, being held back by some invisible force, she retreats to the porch and there begins to understand that because of her impurity, she is prevented from venerating the precious and life-giving cross. She continues:
And so I stood weeping when I saw above me the icon of the most holy Mother of God. Not taking my eyes off her, I said, ‘O Lady, Mother of God, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word, I know, O how well I know, that it is no honour or praise to thee when one so impure and depraved as I look up to thy icon, O ever-virgin, who didst keep thy body and soul in purity. Rightly do I inspire hatred and disgust before thy virginal purity. But I have heard that God Who was born of thee became man on purpose to call sinners to repentance. Then help me, for I have no other help. Order the entrance of the church to be opened to me. Allow me to see the venerable Tree on which He Who was born of thee suffered in the flesh and on which He shed His holy Blood for the redemption of sinners and for me, unworthy as I am. Be my faithful witness before thy Son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication, but as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever thou wilt lead me.’ Thus I spoke and as if acquiring some hope in firm faith and feeling some confidence in the mercy of the Mother of God, I left the place where I stood praying. And I went again and mingled with the crowd that was pushing its way into the temple. And no one seemed to thwart me; no one hindered my entering the church. I was possessed with trembling, and was almost in delirium.
Having got as far as the doors which I could not reach before—as if the same force which had hindered me cleared the way for me—I now entered without difficulty and found myself within the holy place. And so it was I saw the life-giving Cross. I saw too the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance. Throwing myself on the ground, I worshipped that holy earth and kissed it with trembling. Then I came out of the church and went to her who had promised to be my security, to the place where I had sealed my vow. And bending my knees before the Virgin Mother of God, I addressed her with these words: ‘O loving Lady, thou hast shown me thy great love for all men. Glory to God Who receives the repentance of sinners through thee. What more can I recollect or say, I who am so sinful? It is time for me, O Lady to fulfil my vow, according to thy witness. Now lead me by the hand along the path of repentance!’ And at these words I heard a voice from on high: ‘If you cross the Jordan you will find glorious rest.’ Hearing this voice and having faith that it was for me, I cried to the Mother of God: ‘O Lady, Lady, do not forsake me!’ With these words I left the porch of the church and set off on my journey.
Even having heard these words of St Mary of Egypt, I am not sure that words alone can convince us of the unfathomable love of God for the human race. The Holy Scriptures are full of expressions and acts of God’s love, the services are overflowing with this kind of language, the gifts of God in His Church, the love we receive from others, the beauty of God’s creation, the intercessions and miracles of the saints, the weapons we are given against the devil, the joy that awaits those here and now who turn to God with all of their hearts, like St Mary: how can words express this, so that we believe it, accept it, embrace it and live it?
To obtain this, we must hear and believe the words of Christ: Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him? (Luke 11:9-13) That is, the Holy Spirit fills us with love for God, knowing how much He loves us. Very simple instruction!
But you might reply that you hear all this, and intellectually, you know that God is a God of love and not an angry and wrathful God, but still, in your heart of hearts, you don’t really believe this, even though you want to.
Be patient, and ask God to give you His love in your heart! Patience, patience, patience, with a little mustard seed of faith. If we don’t give up and don’t despair, gradually over time, we will be changed, and our heart of stone with be replaced with a heart of flesh, softened by our tears and the grace of God, so that we begin to love God and not just fear Him, and then we will see Him as He really is.
St. Ephraim the Syrian encourages those of us who feel as if our sins are too great, our hearts are too dull, or our view of God is one of sternness and wrath. He writes in the Spiritual Psalter (27):
Do not lose heart, O soul, do not grieve; pronounce not over thyself a final judgment for the multitude of thy sins; do not commit thyself to fire; do not say: the Lord has cast me from His face.
Such words are not pleasing to God. Can it be that he who has fallen cannot get up? Can it be that he who has turned away cannot turn back again? Dost thou not hear how kind the Father is to a prodigal?
Do not be ashamed to turn back and say boldly: I will arise and go to my Father. Arise and go!
He will accept thee and will not reproach thee, but rather rejoice at thy return. He awaits thee; just do not be ashamed and do not hide from the face of God as did Adam.
It was for thy sake that Christ was crucified; so will He cast thee aside? He knows who oppresses us. He knows that we have no other help but Him alone.
Christ knows that man is miserable. Do not give thyself up to despair and apathy, assuming that thou hast been prepared for the fire. Christ derives no consolation from thrusting us into the fire; He gains nothing if He sends us into the abyss to be tormented.5
Let me repeat that! Hearken, ye Puritans!
Do not give thyself up to despair and apathy, assuming that thou hast been prepared for the fire. Christ derives no consolation from thrusting us into the fire; He gains nothing if He sends us into the abyss to be tormented.
Imitate the prodigal son: leave the city that starves thee. Come and beseech Him and thou shalt behold the glory of God. Thy face shall be enlightened and thou wilt rejoice in the sweetness of paradise. Glory to the Lord and Lover of mankind Who saves us!
Now in case that didn’t sink in, let me conclude with St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 3:
I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… that he would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God. Now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto Him be glory in the Church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen. (3:14-21)
—A sermon delivered at Holy Cross Monastery on March 19/April 1, 2012, Fifth Sunday of Great Lent (commemoration of St. Mary of Egypt).